Last Train Out
Tex is a big, good-natured galoot who spends his days at the Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul. Nights he can be found at a camp along the railroad tracks near Lowertown with his dog, Nobody, and a bottle of something to keep off the chill.
"I started riding the rails in 1984," Tex says. "I was 20 years of age and fresh out of the penitentiary when I met some of these older guys, like Fast Cat and Half-Step. They asked me how come I was hitchhiking, and I said, 'Why do you think? I need a ride.' 'Then why not jump the train with us?' they said."
So he did, and he's been hopping freights ever since. Tex has been around St. Paul for the past two years, but he's talking about catching out for Oklahoma. Not before taking certain precautions, though. You'd think someone like Tex, who is about the size of an NFL tight end, doesn't have much to be afraid of. But according to him, discretion is the better part of valor on the tracks these days.
"I'm gonna get me a pistol," he says. "Hell, I've got no choice. Ain't nobody gonna take my shit off me. That's what they're doing out there now. A lot of the guys I used to know retired because of it. They got addresses and everything." Homeless kids who kill for kicks or to make a name for themselves are responsible for most of the violence in Tex's opinion. But not all of it.
In October, 42-year-old Rudy Pacheco was found beaten to death inside a grain elevator in the riverfront area where the Twins want their new stadium. Two transient men, Kenneth Adams and Rhon Butler, have been charged with killing Pacheco, raping several women, and severely beating another man during a two-day drunken binge. According to police, an unidentified witness watched while Pacheco was killed and saw the assailants pull his pants down around his ankles. "He's nothing but a cop-calling punk," the alleged killers reportedly said.
Police and railroad dicks across the country have encountered many murder victims with their pants pulled down. Some have come to think of that particular MO as the calling card of a racist gang with its own grisly rituals and agenda, which according to investigators includes murdering informers. The gang is called the Freight Train Riders of America (FTRA). Whether Pacheco's killers are members, copy-cats, or neither is unknown. But FTRA members are frequent visitors to the Twin Cities area. Their graffiti are visible on just about any railroad overpass in town.
Another murder took place in August on the railroad tracks near Nicollet Island. According to court documents, a group of homeless teenagers had been discussing what it would feel like to murder someone. On August 14, prosecutors charge, Pam Keary, Jeff Shields, and Kenneth Ray Starlin lured 19-year-old Omar Abdullahi--a Somali immigrant who had been staying at a shelter--into an isolated area near the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. Abdullahi was hit with rocks, kicked repeatedly, and stabbed 13 times. An unnamed witness claims Starlin yelled, "die nigger, die," as he wielded the knife. A railroad crew found Abdullahi's body the next day.
Keary and Shields were arrested a short time later. Starlin fled to Colorado, where he is awaiting extradition. "He apparently drifts back and forth between here and there," says Susan Crumb, the assistant Hennepin County attorney who is prosecuting the case.
BUZZ POTTER WAS a hobo in his youth, and the romance of the rails never lost its grip on him. Like many former hobos who went on to lead more prosaic lives, the 59-year-old still occasionally hops a freight for the thrill of it. It's become more dangerous than it used to be, he acknowledges--but hobos aren't to blame.
"A hobo is a working stiff who uses the rails as free transportation," Potter expounds. "He's neat, he's clean, he has a $20 bill tucked in his boot, and he's on his way to someplace where he's heard there is work. He is not a tramp, who will work if he has to, or a bum, who won't work under any circumstances. He is an itinerant working man with his own code and his own lingo who takes pride in having his own independent lifestyle."
Potter has been in the mining and marine construction businesses most of his adult life. He once owned a bar in Brainerd. Now he lives in nearby Nisswa where he publishes a magazine called The Hobo Times, "America's Journal of Wanderlust."
Hobos, he explains, date back to the immediate post-Civil War years, when demobilized soldiers from both armies roamed the country in search of work. Adrift in an agrarian society, they carried hoes because they were most likely to earn money weeding fields. They became known as "hoe-boys," but as time passed and the nature of the work changed, so did their name.
The hobos' sentimental favorite among rail lines is known as the Frisco Line between Memphis and San Francisco, and a key word in their argot derives from that affinity. "The old hobos used to make a ceremony of collecting money for the communal pot of stew by throwing it into a circle," Potter says, "which became known as the Frisco Circle, or just the Frisco."
But hobos, tramps, and bums are no longer alone on the rails. "It's kind of a yuppie thing to hop a freight out here," says detective Chuck Oliver of the Salt Lake City police. His department makes it a point to warn stockbrokers, salespeople, and other weekend riders not to wear top-of-the-line gear when they catch out. "There are guys who will kill you for a good pair of hiking boots," he says.
In July of 1995, Buzz Potter and a buddy whose hobo nickname is Adman (because he owns a Minneapolis advertising agency) hopped a freight to Spokane and back. During a layover in the Whitefish, Montana, yards, the two encountered a railroad cop who warned them that a hobo had been murdered in the area recently. He showed them where it happened.
"The victim had been beaten down with an ax handle," Potter recalls. "Then the perpetrator had picked up a steel fence post that was laying around with a clump of concrete still attached and used that to smash the poor guy's head into the ground. Sawdust had been thrown around to cover the gore, but there were places they'd missed." According to police, the crushed remains of the victim's head had been fastidiously covered with a portion of his shirt, as if the killer had meant to spare whoever discovered it the sight he'd left.
The rest of the trip was pleasant enough, and Potter repeated it the next year. "It'll take more than the fear of some nut to keep me off the rails," he says.
BY 1995 THERE were six murders of transients under investigation in five states, including the one in Whitefish. Many more were unsolved but no longer on active status. Late that year, two more corpses were added to the list.
The first one rolled into Millersburg, Oregon, in an open boxcar on December 3. The victim had been bludgeoned to death. What was left of his head was covered. He was identified as William Petit, Jr.
By tracking the boxcar's serial number against computerized route information, local police were able to conclude that Petit had been murdered 20 miles to the north, in the yards at Salem, Oregon. Jurisdiction passed to the Salem police and the investigation was assigned to detective Mike Quakenbush.
"It's a frustrating kind of case," says Quakenbush. "There didn't seem to be anywhere to start. There were no witnesses, Petit's relatives hadn't seen him for years. Was it random? Revenge? Robbery? You have no idea."
On December 6, another drifter, later identified as Michael Clites, was found in a boxcar in Portland, Oregon, clubbed to death with his crushed head covered. Because of the similarities between the two homicides, Quakenbush teamed up with a Portland detective. They started poking around in the transient community.
"I was pretty naive at the time," says Quakenbush. "I didn't know people rode the trains to the extent they do or that they all had nicknames. I'd never heard of this gang, the FTRA." He consulted with Spokane, Washington, investigator Robert Grandinetti.
Grandinetti's involvement with transients dates back to 1982, when he was in charge of keeping downtown Spokane free of panhandlers. He noticed that many of the transients he hassled wore bandannas held together at the throat by a concho, a cowboy's saddle ring. The bandannas were mostly black, with a scattering of blue and red ones. They identified the wearers as members of the FTRA, Grandinetti was told. "The initials stood for Freedom Riders of America, or Freight Train Riders of America. I began to recognize their graffiti, which you will almost always see on railway underpasses and bridges."
The colors of the bandannas reflect three distinct FTRA factions, Grandinetti learned. Those who wear red mainly ride the rails across the Southern U.S. Blue means they stick to the old Frisco line across the country's midsection, and black belongs to riders of the so-called high line that runs from the Twin Cities to the state of Washington. Many FTRA members are Vietnam vets and ex-bikers; many, Grandinetti says, espouse a racist ideology akin to that of the Aryan Nation.
In the mid 1980s, while Grandinetti was first learning about the FTRA, the bodies of eight transient men were found along the rail line between Sand Point, Idaho, and Pasco, Washington. Their pants were down around their ankles, and their shirts had been pulled over their heads. Each was missing a limb. "The authorities kind of dismissed it as railroad accidents," says Grandinetti, "but I don't buy it. One maybe, but eight?" The fact that each victim's clothes were positioned the same way struck him as a signature. The crimes were never solved.
Grandinetti says FTRA members spoke readily to him about gang lingo, rituals, and petty crime in general terms, though they never provided information about specific criminal acts. "They won't squeal," he says. "Squealers are dealt with severely."
The black-bandana-clad high-liners, Grandinetti claims, are the most violence-prone of the FTRA. A faction known as the Death Squad, he says, enforces the gang's agenda, which ranges from acquiring extra ID to taking revenge on squealers.
Tex, the sometime St. Paul resident, claims to be acquainted with several FTRA members, including a man Grandinetti calls the head of the Death Squad--Dog-Man Tony. "I talked to him just the other day. He's down in LaCrosse now. I rode with [another member named] Sidetrack out in California, and look here, old Tuck, he wrote his name on my jacket. I got nothing bad to say about the FTRA, leastways not the older guys. Some of these younger ones who claim to be ragged and tagged FTRA, they aren't nothing but wannabes. They're causing all the trouble."
But if pressed, Tex will admit that Dog-Man Tony may have done some bad things, starting when he lived in Minneapolis a few years ago. "I told him, man, you went south on me. You went to shit. He just tells me, 'I know, Tex, I know.'"
Last July, Anthoney Hugh Ross a.k.a. Dog-Man Tony was arrested in LaCrosse on a warrant charging him with a Texas murder. A Texas investigator came to Wisconsin to question him. He hoped to have Dog-Man extradited on the strength of an eyewitness description of the murder. Dog-Man allegedly taunted his victim by holding a knife to his throat and saying, "I could kill you in a heartbeat," then slit his throat and said, "Oh well, another one bites the dust." Dog-Man, who claims not to be a member of the FTRA, became a minor celebrity after being featured on "America's Most Wanted." He was released from the LaCrosse jail in August after the witness in the Texas case was run over and killed by a train.
IN AUGUST 1994, Michael Garfinkle, 20, a college student who rode the rails for kicks, was found dead with his smashed head covered along the railway tracks near Emeryville, California. Earlier that year, a vagrant named Willie Clark was found beaten to death in Tallahassee, Florida. He'd been robbed and bludgeoned with a steel pole that had concrete clumped at one end. His head was covered. Another drifter was murdered and robbed in a hobo jungle in Kansas a year later. That was shortly before the murder in Whitefish, and with a similar MO.
Those investigations were going nowhere, but the probe of an April 1995 murder in the Salt Lake City rail yards was more promising. Like the other victims, Roger Lee Bowman had been beaten with a blunt object. The police had an eyewitness.
The Salt Lake victim, the perpetrator, and a transient woman had been drinking and doing drugs in a hobo jungle near the tracks. "An argument started and the lady left," detective Chuck Oliver explains. "There'd been some threats, and she had a sense that things might get violent. She told us she went to a nearby liquor store, and when she returned her boyfriend was dead. She said that a man named Brad Foster had killed him. He'd fled, of course. We believe he hopped a freight for California." The witness described Foster as a white male in his late 30s or early 40s, 6 feet tall, and weighing about 190 pounds. His dark hair was cropped short.
Meanwhile Mike Quakenbush, the Salem detective, had sent out a nationwide teletype asking other police agencies if they were aware of homicides similar to the one he was investigating. Many investigators responded, and the suspicion arose that a serial killer was at work.
Quakenbush obtained a photo of the Portland victim, Michael Clites, and showed it to transients. One recalled being with him in a homeless mission in Vancouver, Washington, on December 4, the day Clites cashed a $300 disability check. In Vancouver, Quakenbush found a man who'd ridden a freight with Clites as far as Eugene. He'd last seen Clites, that man said, walking off with a guy who called himself Sidetrack.
Quakenbush began spending time in the railroad yards. He hopped a few freights and talked to more drifters and railroad police. Some were familiar with Sidetrack's name, but none knew his whereabouts.
Sidetrack wasn't his only target. Salt Lake City investigator Oliver had given Quakenbush the name and description of the suspect in their case, Brad Foster. Several other detectives told him their investigations had brought up the name Robert Silveria--not as a suspect, but as someone worth talking to.
Quakenbush sent word to railroad police all over the West Coast to be on the lookout for Brad Foster, Sidetrack, and Silveria. In early 1996, he received a call from a rail officer in Roseville, California. Silveria was in town, and police soon arrested him on a parole violation. A few days later, Quakenbush came down to question him. He noted that Silveria was just over 6 feet and weighed about 180 pounds. A tattoo on his throat said, "Freedom."
"The first thing I asked him was his train name. He said it was Sidetrack, and that's when things clicked for me."
AT THE HOBO Music Festival last June in Marquette, Iowa, several hobos said they knew Sidetrack. They spoke of running into him in the Mountain West, in Texas, and as far east as Florida. Most were only casually acquainted with him, but the Texas Madman claims to know him well.
The Madman is rail-thin and hollow-cheeked. A few wisps of beard sprout from his chin, and big, sunken, blue eyes peer from his rachitic face. He wears a railroad man's cap and a denim jacket sporting a button that says Brotherhood of Hobos of America.
"Sidetrack and I rode together for quite a little time," he says, "mostly in 1989 and '90. We rode the old Southern Pacific, looking for lumber work up around Klamath Falls. He was not a bad man to ride with. He was a good cribbage player, and if we were jungled up somewhere with nothing for the Frisco, why, he'd get into a game with some of these railroad men, and pretty soon we'd have $150 or more. He was not young, but he was a strong man, over 6 foot tall. Drank vodka.
"He never struck me as the kind of person they say he is. We'd ride together for a few days, maybe up to a week or two sometimes. One thing, though, regular as clockwork he'd disappear for a while. Wouldn't say nothing, just be gone, maybe an hour, maybe half a day. Gives me an awful feeling to think what he might have been doing, but I never felt any threat from him. Said he'd been on the rails 11 years. Had a wife and family somewhere."
Choo Choo Johnson and Guitar Whitey met Sidetrack in the Portland yards on in August 1995. The encounter is well documented. Johnson, whose real name is Donald Warner, is a retired account executive with Paine Webber who writes for Buzz Potter's Hobo Times and takes many of the railroad pictures that grace its cover.
Sidetrack told Johnson his name was Paul Dykeman. He claimed to be a roofer by trade, moving from job to job via the rails. They were impressed by his work ethic and his cheerful demeanor. They weren't even put off when he told them he was an FTRA member. He claimed the organization had gotten a bad name from the actions of a few. He said he'd spent five years in a penitentiary but was a reformed man.
They kindled a fire, brewed some coffee, and Choo Choo asked Whitey and their new buddy to pose for a picture. They did, and the man who appears in the photo has since been positively identified by investigators as Robert Silveria a.k.a. Sidetrack. In the picture Silveria's pack is on the ground next to him. An ax handle protrudes from it. That, he would later claim, was his weapon.
"I rode out of Havre, Montana, with Sidetrack," says Tex. "Never knew what he was up to, but I'll tell you this. He drank a whole lot of vodka, and sometimes he'd black out and act kind of strange."
WITH SILVERIA IN custody, Quakenbush contacted the other police agencies investigating the murders of drifters, and soon detectives were descending on Auburn, California. Silveria spoke freely to them for days.
"It struck me that he just wanted to get a load off his mind," says Wade Harper, who was investigating the murder of the college student/hobo in nearby Emeryville. "He just calmly stated the facts, in great detail. I more or less ran out of questions to ask. I had to ask him if I'd left anything out."
For Tallahassee investigator Jeff Johnson, Silveria drew a map of the area where Willie Clark had been murdered two years before. "You'd have thought a surveyor drew it, it was that accurate," says Johnson.
Sidetrack told both Chuck Oliver of Salt Lake and a California detective that he killed in a rage. He said rage was a necessary precursor to the act, and if it didn't come upon him naturally, he would manufacture an incident that provoked a confrontation.
Silveria has since recanted all his confessions and is awaiting trial in Oregon. First-degree murder charges have been filed against him in four cases--two in Oregon, one in Kansas, and one in Florida. "We have plenty of evidence, but we're sort of waiting in line," says Chuck Oliver of Salt Lake City, whose investigation has led him to believe his suspect, Brad Foster, is Sidetrack.
Silveria is the prime suspect in five other cases, including the Whitefish, Montana, killing, based on his confessions in jail. He spoke of eight murders in all, but investigators say they have evidence connecting him with at least 12 dating back to 1989. "He fits the serial-killer mode," says Grandinetti. "He has his little ritual. He covers their heads." Another investigator, however, fears that Silveria is "clearing paper" for the FTRA, taking the rap for crimes other than his own. If that scenario is correct, Sidetrack just made life easier for killers on the rails.
In any case, their chances of getting caught are slim. Violent deaths of marginal people rank among investigators' least favorite homicides to probe. The murder of Daryl Lee Smith, a homeless man found bludgeoned to death in September on the tracks near 29th Street and Emerson Avenue South in Minneapolis, is a case in point.
What's known about Smith, says Minneapolis Police Sgt. Barb Moe, is that "he sometimes stayed at the Anishinabe House over on East 19th, and he and a crowd of people he socialized with often went down to the tracks there to drink and hang out." Smith's sister, Lucille, had been beaten to death just a few weeks previous to her brother's demise.
Yet, says Moe, "I don't have anything to connect his death with hers. I've been looking into an FTRA connection, too, but there's nothing to implicate them as yet. I'm looking into every avenue possible." Moe has checked out the graffiti in the area and has noted that some of it originates with a punk-oriented crowd that hangs around the tracks closer to Uptown. "I don't have anything solid to link Mr. Smith's murder to them, either," she says.
Meanwhile, empty freight cars are getting harder to find. The number of drifters who ride the rails has increased in recent years, with newcomers driven by economic forces and personal demons alike. "They say it's going to be a bloody summer," says Tex. "Clinton cut all these people off welfare, food stamps are harder to get. It's gonna be tough."
Still Tex--who claims he can make $300 in a good day's panhandling--says he can't imagine quitting. "I'm bipolar," he explains. "I don't take the medicine, though. It makes me sleepy." He prefers a little reefer, or just to "get on the train and ride. It's the best upper there is."
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